Violence and Risky Responses in El Salvador

By Héctor Silva

PresidenciaRD and US Embassy San Salvador / Flickr / Creative Commons

PresidenciaRD and US Embassy San Salvador / Flickr / Creative Commons

Salvadoran President Sánchez Cerén, facing a surge in gang-related violence, is grasping at risky solutions.  The 481 murders last month – about 16 per day – broke a 10-year record and represented a 52 percent increase over the same month in 2014.  The soaring murder rate has deep roots going back to well before Sánchez Cerén and his FMLN predecessor, President Funes, came to power in 2009, but its immediate cause is the end last year of the three-way truce between the country’s two biggest gangs – the MS13 and Barrio 18 – and the government.  Negotiated by the Funes administration in 2012, the truce provided a respite that, according to many observers, was doomed to fail because it split gang leaders, with those outside prison expanding their power, and allowed both gangs to expand their territorial control largely unfettered.  Another factor is weak leadership and low morale among public security forces, especially the National Police, which has gutted confidence among the rank and file and prompted some frustrated commanders to take matters into their own hands.  Extrajudicial executions of gang members in retaliation for the loss of police comrades have further driven up the death toll.  Observers increasingly refer to El Salvador’s current situation as a “low-intensity conflict.”

Sánchez Cerén has tried an array of sometimes contradictory tactics in response to the gang problem and the violence, creating an appearance of incoherence and ineffectiveness.  Without disputing estimates of the spiraling death toll, he has blamed the right wing and the media for creating a crisis atmosphere.  Over the past 10 months, he has attempted – and failed – to implement “community policing” strategies, which languish due to inadequate funding and planning, and he recently led several hundred thousand people in a march for “life, peace, and justice.”  With mounting pressure on the President to adopt hardline approaches, he has pledged greater resources to arm and deploy special anti-gang units, and last week he announced intent to supplement the 7,000 military troops already dedicated to law-enforcement duty with the creation of three new “Gang Cleanup Battalions.”  The government says that these 1,200 elite Army troops, strikingly reminiscent of the “Immediate Reaction Infantry Battalions” (BIRIs) that committed grave human rights abuses when deployed during the civil war, will be under civilian police control.

The President’s moves are fraught with danger.  His zigzags signal weakness to his ambitious political opponents and the gangs alike, and his political liabilities will only mount if, as almost all observers expect, the new battalions escalate the war in a manner that fuels extrajudicial killings and other human rights violations.  Criticism from advocates of dialogue with the gangs, including negotiators involved in the previous truce, further weaken him.  The fact is that the gangs, taking advantage of decades of state neglect of key sectors of society, have established strong bases of support in areas where the state’s presence and credibility are already nil or worse.  The shift toward a militarized strategy, moreover, runs counter to the tragic lessons learned in Honduras and Guatemala.  Going after the maras will entail battle in marginalized urban and rural areas that should be Sánchez Cerén’s and his FMLN party’s natural constituencies.  In a lose-lose situation, Sánchez Cerén may be opting for the surer loss.

April 23, 2015

El Salvador Security Challenges: Shaky Response So Far

By Héctor Silva Ávalos

Globovisión / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Globovisión / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

After five and a half months in office, Salvadoran President Sánchez Cerén is still groping for ways to address the country’s pressing security concerns.  According to official figures, the homicide rate has rebounded to 11 per day – compared to five or six per day for four months last year during a gang truce sponsored by President Funes and his Security Minister, General  Munguía.  Highly unpopular among Salvadorans and despised by the United States – the key partner in security issues – the truce turned out to be the most effective homicide reduction policy since the end of the Civil War.  For Sánchez Cerén, however, the failure to renew the truce has proven to be politically toxic as violence has once again surged.  Inside sources say that the new government has engaged in a quiet dialogue with gang leaders but refuses to publicly embrace it as a mainstay of its approach to security.  Instead, Public Security Minister Benito Lara is pushing a model of community policing that has yet to prove effective and will be difficult to implement nationally.  Low morale within police ranks, the unwillingness of citizens to cooperate with police in gang-plagued territories and, as always, the lack of meaningful resources to address social investment in poor and violent communities are undermining the policy.

Two main elements of a successful approach – funding and political courage – are lacking.  Truce implementation was supposed to be followed by a comprehensive social investment program called Comunidades libres de violencia (Communities Free of Violence), but it never got funded.  Sánchez Cerén, moreover, has shown reluctance to take on the security issue.  The United States, for its part, has provided millions of dollars in assistance under its Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) for vetted units of special investigators, transnational law enforcement initiatives to combat gangs, police equipment and training, and prison management, but institutional weaknesses remain acute and violence has continued to climb.  Moreover, many critics say the programs are flawed by a failure to condition aid on concrete government steps to end security forces’ impunity, corruption, and secret cooperation with organized crime.

The days in which iron-fist approaches and fanfare-hyping law enforcement activity represented a credible security strategy have passed.  Salvadoran politicians can no longer talk their way out of the security chaos by selling mano dura fantasies.  The truce under President Funes helped gang leaders consolidate their influence and hone their political skills to the point that a solution to reduce homicides without gang leaders’ imprimatur is plainly not possible.  As President, Sánchez Cerén has the opportunity to provide strong leadership, while addressing the public’s concerns, to pursue talks under clear conditions and with credible consequences for gang violations.  In return for a gang promise to reduce homicides, stop recruitment in vulnerable areas, and end gang rapes, the President could credibly offer to allow them greater sway in prisons and to support social programs in affected communities.  He can also commit to find the necessary resources.  The elites will resist paying, but a mini-summit of the three Presidents of Central America’s northern tier and U.S. Vice President Biden hosted by the Inter-American Development Bank this week affords Sánchez Cerén a chance to make a bilateral pitch for help to Biden and a multilateral pitch to the IDB.  He will have to steel himself for the political hits that will ensue, but without strong leadership, security in El Salvador will only continue to deteriorate.   The former guerrilla leader must know that there is no easy solution at hand, but as President – validated by a democratic election – he has the responsibility and holds the power to act.

November 11, 2014

El Salvador: The Maras, Community Action, and Social Exclusion

By Mario Zetino Duarte, Larissa Brioso, and Margarita Montoya

Photo Courtesy of FLACSO-El Salvador

Photo Courtesy of FLACSO-El Salvador

Maras and gangs in El Salvador have become social actors with great power in communities suffering from a high level of social exclusion. They have been linked to violence and organized crime, and they have been blamed for the highest number of homicides, organized criminal actions, and the generalized insecurity in which the country lives. They have brought a sense of isolation to the communities in which they live, as well as a reputation that increases the communities’ exclusion. According to a study being conducted in crime-ridden communities of Santa Tecla (near San Salvador) and Sonsonate (64 km. west of the capital), the maras’ power derives from their ability to cause fear and terror among inhabitants as a result of their effective and organized criminal actions. Their influence has a strong psychological impact and broad influence over people’s lives. The criminal activities of the gangs in the community are generally rejected by inhabitants because they put families at risk, make neighborhoods the target of police operations, and taint both the community and its residents socially – making it hard for people to get or keep jobs.

Nonetheless, many citizens in these communities have a positive assessment of the maras when it comes to providing important neighborhood security, due to a lack of national or local authority. In Santa Tecla and Sonsonate, the Salvadoran government, the municipality, international organizations, and other institutions have invested heavily in programs to stem the tide of mara violence, with mixed results. These communities suffer from low levels of employment, education, and social security, particularly among women. Afraid of retribution, citizens in these communities do not turn to state institutions to report crimes or to request protection, and they instead approach the maras to take actions regarding conflicts with neighbors and situations related to domestic violence. The void in institutional services, which has been permanent in some communities, is being filled by the maras and their members, making them the primary support for the local Asociaciones de Desarrollo and implementers of development plans.

Changes in the community philosophy of the National Civilian Police (PNC) in one of the communities of the study offers a useful example of how new approaches can help improve citizens’ lives. The PNC’s new approach to the community and its underlying social and security problems has also led to the evolution of the maras’ role as community actors and their legitimacy in the people’s eyes, primarily based on the fear they instill. This has benefited some communities.  Likewise, international cooperation – which has played an essential role – and the recent implementation of community policing practices as a model within the national security strategy to reduce gang criminality have driven debate on how communities can confront violence and crime in a sustained manner. The problems are far from resolved, but the gangs, the police, and the state each appear to be redefining strategies and roles. It remains to be seen whether these actions are sustainable and applicable in other territories – and whether the maras’ involvement in development programs can help create conditions for citizens to cope with the violence and social exclusion that plague their communities.

* Mario Zetino Duarte, Larissa Brioso, and Margarita Montoya are researchers at FLACSO-El Salvador.  Their study is funded by the International Development Research Centre.

El Salvador’s Former Guerrilla – and New Commander in Chief

By Héctor Silva Ávalos

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Salvadoran President Salvador Sanchez Ceren with Secretary of State John Kerry during his visit to Washington, D.C. [State Department photo/ Public Domain]

Twenty-two years after participating in the signing ceremony of the UN-brokered peace accord that ended El Salvador’s civil war, Salvador Sánchez Cerén, one of the FMLN’s top guerrilla commanders, was sworn-in as president last Sunday.  The political reforms mandated by the Chapultapec agreement launched the country onto a sometimes tumultuous path toward a new democratic landscape that, at least on paper, included the alternation of power: for 20 years the ARENA party, representing the hard-right, ruled the country; in 2009, moderate Mauricio Funes, a popular TV journalist, and the FMLN established an alliance that took them to the Presidential Palace.  Through the prism of Sánchez Cerén’s recent victory, Funes’s was a transitional government.  El Salvador now begins its first period under the rule of the former guerrilla party that fought an insurrectional war against the allies of Ronald Reagan´s Washington during the last years of the Cold War.

Sánchez Cerén and the FMLN’s challenges are many – a stagnant economy; a private sector not used to a political system that doesn’t respond resolutely to its economic interests; a dysfunctional fiscal system; and one of the worst security situations in the world – with 14 homicides a day, growing gangs, and a reign of impunity inherited from the war years and perpetuated by organized crime’s success infiltrating state and political institutions.

The new leadership will also have to deal with the interests of El Salvador’s most powerful neighbor and ally, the United States.  The Obama administration sent a third-level delegation to Sánchez Cerén’s inauguration, and Secretary of State John Kerry did receive him in Washington before that.  Among the first items on the bilateral agenda is El Salvador’s access to funds in a second compact with the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), a $400 million program aimed at bringing fresh money to the underdeveloped and poor coastal areas.  The program is on hold because MCC is not satisfied with the country’s Anti-Money Laundering and Asset Law and because San Salvador has not yet caved to pressure from the U.S. Trade Representative to buy agricultural products – mainly seeds – within the CAFTA region, which would favor U.S. producers.  Washington’s reluctance to work with FMLN officers in law enforcement and security issues is another obstacle.

So far, Sánchez Cerén and his cabinet have tried to play the U.S. relationship smart.  But managing ties is not going to be a walk in the park.  Despite public winks and carefully worded statements, neither side really trusts the other.  But the bilateral connection is important to both.  Roughly one third of all Salvadorans live in the United States, and, in the last several decades, Washington has appreciated El Salvador’s importance in a region where it is losing influence.  The new government has sent a number of signals to Washington by visiting the State Department, engaging in most of the Treasury’s and USTR’s conditions on the MCC compact and launching an early dialogue with the international financial institutions.  But Sánchez Cerén has made it clear that he will also heed El Salvador’s natural allies, albeit for practical rather than ideological reasons.  Just this week, El Salvador requested formal acceptance to Petrocaribe, the Venezuelan economic and financial aid program.  Dealing with violence, insecurity and financial problems will require fresh resources that the government will welcome wherever their origin.  But it also seems possible that the new commander in chief´s patience with Washington’s style of diplomacy – such as pressure tactics to buy American agricultural goods – could be much shorter than that of his predecessors.  

El Salvador: Storm or Calm Ahead?

By CLALS Staff

Embed from Getty Images

The post-election crisis in El Salvador has been tense but generally peaceful – and, despite some tough talk and street scuffles, both sides appear prepared to accept the final vote tally when certified.  FMLN candidate Salvador Sánchez Cerén still holds a tiny lead of about 6,000 votes of 3 million cast.  The last polls released before the runoff contest last Sunday gave him a 10- to 15-point lead, obviously failing to reflect the success of a well-structured campaign of fear by ARENA to rebuild support for its candidate, Norman Quijano.  The campaign, facilitated by mainstream media long sympathetic to ARENA, claimed that four more years of “leftist” FMLN rule would result in the sort of political instability and economy shortages that Venezuela is experiencing.  ARENA proclaimed, “El Salvador, otra Venezuela.”  Voting analyses suggest that the campaign and an energetic ground strategy rebuilt ARENA’s traditional base among the middle- and upper-middle class, enabling it to close much of the gap.  Specifically, the first-round votes that went to former President Tony Saca – who had moved away from the ARENA hard right and even flirted with alliance with FMLN moderates – tacked back to the right.  The FMLN won an additional 150,000 votes.

The FMLN has been behaving as the reasonable incumbent and ARENA as the noisy opposition.  Sánchez Cerén has pledged to accept “any results announced by the TSE.”  Quijano and other ARENA officials have accused the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) of “Chávez-style fraud.”  He said he was “not going to allow the citizens to be robbed of an election” and told party faithful to “fight, if necessary, with our lives.”  He called on the Army, which he claimed “is tracking this fraud that his occurring,” to “defend the results.”

ARENA’s heated rhetoric – Quijano’s invitation to military intervention was unprecedented in recent years – has been alarming, but most reports indicate that the TSE has retained credibility throughout the vote count and crisis.  The TSE may soon be able to determine a winner, but the hard fact remains that his legitimacy will not automatically be accepted across party lines.  If certified the winner, Sánchez Cerén will enjoy fairly solid party support but will have to moderate his approach from the start.  A victorious Quijano, on the other hand, will sit atop a divided party – of which he represents the more conservative wing – and probably will also feel pressure to move toward the center.  The campaign to portray the FMLN as the equivalent of Chávez’s party succeeded without a shred of evidence because, despite the FMLN’s relatively democratic and transparent governance over the past four years, many Salvadorans still lean right when afraid.  Quijano’s suggestion that he has an inside track with the Army – harkening back to the days that ARENA indeed enjoyed near lockstep cooperation from the armed forces – may haunt him if he doesn’t restate his confidence in civilian democratic institutions.  The U.S. Embassy has called on all parties to respect the TSE’s count and accept the final results.

Central America: Elections Send Different Messages

By CLALS Staff

Salvadoran Presidential candidat Salvador Sánchez Ceréne  Photo credit: Cancillería Ecuador / Foter / CC BY-SA

Salvadoran Presidential candidate Photo credit: Cancillería Ecuador / Foter / CC BY-SA

The two elections held last weekend reflected different states of mind in El Salvador and Costa Rica. In the former, FMLN candidate Sánchez Cerén didn’t win the majority necessary to avoid a runoff, but the rejection of the ARENA party was strong and almost nationwide. ARENA candidate Norman Quijano not only trailed by 10 percentage points; his party’s victory in only one of the country’s 14 departments – remote Cabañas – was a serious blow to its image.  According to press reports, party infighting is intensifying.

Costa Rican Presidential candidate Johnny Araya and Antonio Álvarez Desanti, Chief of the Araya Presidential Campaign  By Lcascante2000 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http:/via Wikimedia Commons

Costa Rican Presidential candidate Johnny Araya (left) / By Lcascante2000 / CC-BY-SA-3.0 / Wikimedia Commons

In Costa Rica, the eleventh-hour surge of a left-leaning progressive – Legislator José María Villalta – gave rise to a unified effort by the traditional parties to cast themselves as essential to warding off “Chavismo” and even Communism. Commentators judged that Citizen Action Party candidate Luis Guillermo Solís ran a mediocre campaign, but he denied ruling National Liberation Party candidate Johnny Araya – whose large campaign coffers gave him a significant edge – a first-round victory, beating him by about 1.5 percent (but still far short of the 40 percent to avoid a runoff). Both candidates’ red-baiting tactics apparently got people out to vote – abstentionism was not higher than in the past as feared – and popular cries for change shifted to a mandate for the status quo.

Jockeying for the second- round elections – on March 9 in El Salvador and April 6 in Costa Rica – has begun in both countries.  The FMLN’s Sánchez Cerén appears likely to win even without a pact with former President Saca, formerly an ARENA standardbearer. In Costa Rica, Solís is widely believed likely to win, as Araya is burdened by a lackluster record as San José mayor for 21 years and by his party ties to President Laura Chinchilla, whose disapproval ratings have broken records in the history of polling in the country.

Neither new president will have an easy time governing. Their legislatures are deeply fractured, and corruption and weak Executive Branch institutions will plague them as they’ve plagued their predecessors. ARENA appeared as weak as ever and, already showing signs of crisis, will need to retool. As it loses its access to the lucre of government treasury, it’s going to lose the glue that holds it together and infighting will persist and intensify. Costa Rica’s legislators, including those of the majority National Liberation Party (PLN), have in recent years shown little willingness or ability to put aside venal interests and engage in the serious business of policymaking. Insofar as they construe voters’ last-minute rejection of Villalta as a rejection of change, Costa Rican politicians probably judge that the coast is clear for business as usual.

 

 

El Salvador: Memory, the Persistent Discomfort

By Héctor Silva Ávalos

Mural that was removed from the Metropolitan Cathedral under Archbishop Escobar Alas / Photo credit: J. Stephen Conn / Foter / CC BY-NC

Mural that was removed from the Metropolitan Cathedral under Archbishop Escobar Alas / Photo credit: J. Stephen Conn / Foter / CC BY-NC

The sudden closure of the Legal Aid Service – Tutela Legal – of the Archbishop of San Salvador appears to be a massive blow to efforts to hold human rights violators and war criminals from the civil war accountable for their deeds.  Without previous notice or warrant, workers arrived at their offices on September 30 to find new locks on the doors and private guards blocking the entrance.  That same day some of the workers claimed to have discovered evidence indicating that Monsignor José Luis Escobar Alas, the Archbishop, had long before decided to close Tutela.  The office was opened in 1982 by Mons. Arturo Rivera Damas to fulfill a project designed by his predecessor, Mons. Óscar Arnulfo Romero, the Archbishop killed two years earlier during mass by a death squad and who is now under consideration for sainthood by the Vatican.  It holds one of the most detailed archives on the repression, crimes and human rights violations committed during the Salvadoran war, mainly by state-sponsored agents.

Mons. Escobar Alas has surprised observers in the past.  In late 2011, he ordered the removal of a mural by a popular Salvadoran artist from the Metropolitan Cathedral without any explanation to the artist or to the church’s large congregation.  The mural commemorated the earliest attempts at a negotiated settlement to the war.  Facing an outcry, Escobar Alas claimed the mural was Church property and that the Church was entitled to do with it as it pleased.  The same tone was evident after the Tutela closing as protests came not just from a good number of Catholics but from the Ombudsman’s office, the President of the Republic and 258 US and Salvadoran scholars who ran an ad in a major newspaper.  The Archbishop and his spokesmen provided at least three different versions of the event, saying alternately that Tutela was closed because it had already served the purpose for which it was created in the war years; it was closed to give its spaces to an ad hoc commission (with an unclear mandate and authorities); and that the Church had encountered financial wrongdoings in Tutela so grave that it had to close.

The closure happened at a time of important progress in human rights accountability.  At the center of it all was access to Tutela’s archives, some 50,000 files about the infamous 1980s – potentially crucial evidence in ongoing or upcoming judicial processes that Salvadoran elites have long tried to keep under wraps.  For the first time in a decade, last month the Attorney General’s office made public its intention to open a special unit committed to review war massacres such as the one in El Mozote, where some 1,000 peasants were killed by a U.S.-trained elite battalion.  Also, for the first time since the early post-war period, an independent Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice agreed to hold a hearing on the admissibility of a case under the Amnesty Law, the legal provision that has prevented many cases from being brought to justice.  And for the first time, there is a real chance for a Spanish court to address the murder of six Jesuit priests and their two aides after one of the accused in that massacre, a colonel, was convicted and imprisoned in a U.S. jail pending extradition to Madrid.  In all of these legal cases, the files held by Tutela Legal would provide crucial documentation to prosecutors.  The only credible explanation for the closing of the service is that pressure was brought to bear on the Archbishop by interests that wish to block access to this important body of evidence in the event that they are unable to prevent trials from opening. 

The ad hoc commission that the Archbishop said will be formed will include members with credibility – including Father José María Tojeira, former Jesuit envoy for Central America, and Mons. Jesús Delgado, Archbishop Romero´s biographer – and may hold some promise.  But the vagueness about its authority and technical questions, including the legal admissibility of Tutela files as the chain of custody is broken, raise serious doubts.  Whatever happens, the many Salvadorans who believe in the healing power of memory – and accountability – will need to remain constantly vigilant.  The same memory has been a persistent discomfort to some Salvadoran elites, who have long thwarted such efforts.

 

Confusion over “Responsible Mining”

By Robin Broad

Anti-minng campaign, El Salvador / Photo credit: laurizza / Foter / CC BY

Anti-minng campaign, El Salvador / Photo credit: laurizza / Foter / CC BY

One of today’s buzzwords – “responsible mining” – is like most others, so vague that it means whatever its user wants.

  • For most corporate executives and many government officials, mining is responsible if it aims to maximize economic growth and economic profits, because mainstream economic theory tells us that that will make everyone better off in the most efficient way.  In this view, the benefits multiply and trickle down to the poor.  In terms of environmental impact, some proponents of this view argue that as a country grows in economic terms, certain environmental pollutants decrease.  The governments of Guatemala and Honduras, which have increased the number of licenses granted to global mining corporations, seem to embrace this definition.
  • Some corporations cast the definition of “responsible mining” within their concept of “corporate responsibility.”  Typically, such companies do not change the production process itself, but rather commit to using some profits to do something “good.”  In the Philippines, for instance, Australian-headquartered OceanaGold plants trees near its mine and contributes to medical missions and community programs.
  • Yet another definition of “responsible mining” focuses on increasing the portion of the economic and financial benefits of mining that accrue to the Southern “host” country versus to the foreign mining entity.  This typically centers on increasing the taxes levied on the mining companies.  A more “progressive” version of this approach emphasizes how much of the funds stay on a local versus national level within the host country.
  • The ideal – and probably least common – definition of “responsible mining” involves a comprehensive assessment of long-term economic, social, and environmental costs and benefits.  This requires the free, prior, and informed consent of local communities before corporations influence communities or officials with social “contributions.”  Environmentally, it involves careful assessment – based on full information by an objective party – of the impact of the mining, including all chemicals used in the mining process, all toxins released, and the broader environmental impacts and risks.

The ideal definition may sound like pie in the sky, but it is not.  Case in point: The government of El Salvador has not issued new mining licenses since 2008, primarily because a growing citizens’ movement has rallied around protecting the affected watershed, which supplies the majority of the country and is already severely polluted.  So too did the Salvadoran government demand a Strategic Environmental Review, overseen by both the Ministry of the Environment and the Ministry of the Economy, to try to weigh  the economic benefits (wages, taxes, etc.) during a mine’s limited life against social and environmental impacts.  Indeed, in El Salvador, as in the Philippines, grassroots communities and some key elected officials are trying to give deeper meaning to the definition of “responsible mining,” so that it is no longer merely a buzzword.

Dr. Broad is a professor in American University’s School of International Service.

Is the Truth Finally Arriving in El Salvador?

By Héctor Silva Ávalos

Memorial of massacre site at El Mozote, Morazan, El Salvador | By Efrojas | Wikimedia Commons | public domain

Memorial of massacre site at El Mozote, Morazan, El Salvador | By Efrojas | Wikimedia Commons | public domain

A U.S. court is on the verge of making a major contribution to El Salvador’s struggle to end impunity.  A former Salvadoran military commander six weeks ago admitted in a Miami immigration court that his troops had engaged in human rights violations and extrajudicial killings in the 1980s.  More significantly, he confirmed that the U.S.-trained and -funded Atlacatl Battalion was responsible for the horrendous massacre at El Mozote, a hamlet in which the elite Marine-style battalion killed an estimated one thousand peasants, mostly women and children, over three days in December 1981.  Until recently, current and former military commanders claimed that reports of the bloodbath were communist propaganda.  In his defense, General José Guillermo García, who was defense minister, said he was unaware of the soldiers’ actions at the time.  The judge responded skeptically, saying García “didn’t do what a military officer respectful of the law should have done in order to fully serve his country and his people.”

The General’s confession is no small matter.  An Amnesty Law passed in 1993, pushed by allies of the war-era government, put the lid on many investigations.  Its passage kept two mid-ranking officers convicted of involvement in the 1989 Jesuit massacre from serving their prison sentences, and it paved the way for other military and civilian leaders to cover up that atrocity. The air of impunity has endured for 20 years.  General García’s testimony provides the first real open window for Salvadorans to start learning about what happened despite strong efforts to keep the truth under wraps.  The political and economic elites’ defense of the Amnesty Law has focused on the argument that El Salvador should not be confronting its past if it really wants reconciliation and peace.  But two decades after the peace accord brought the end of the war, that kind of thinking is beginning to fade, and will continue to wane as Salvadoran society is confronted with the naked truth, the naked horrors.

The Obama Administration deserves some credit for advancing the legal case against García and a former colonel facing similar immigration charges in Boston, Inocente Orlando Montano.  Both processes have been encouraged by a U.S. policy of locating and ousting foreigners on U.S. soil who have been credibly accused of human rights violations abroad.  However ironic it is that some of the violations were committed by units receiving U.S. assistance, Washington is promoting an important lesson:  generals who once held in their hands power over citizens’ lives and deaths become common defendants – criminals – when the truth is known.  The impunity enjoyed by the colonels and generals – and their civilian sponsors – has grown roots in Salvadoran institutions and still feeds today a culture of obscurity, injustice and inequity that prevents the country’s progress towards development and modernity.  This vicious cycle will not will not end until they are held accountable.

Read the full text of this essay.

Salvadoran Gang Truce: Opportunities and Risks

By Héctor Silva, CLALS Research Fellow

President Funes of El Salvador | Photo by: Blog do Planalto | Flickr | Creative Commons

President Funes of El Salvador | Photo by: Blog do Planalto | Flickr | Creative Commons

Despite the general agreement that the truce between El Salvador’s two main gangs, MS-13 and Barrio 18, has lowered the homicide rate dramatically – from 14 killings a day in 2011 to some 5-6 in 2012 – many serious challenges persist. The truce was brokered by a former guerrilla commander and a Catholic bishop and, after two months of denying a government role, Security Minister General David Munguía Payés acknowledged that his office was the mastermind.  It is now entering a second stage in which six municipalities, ruled by both the governing FMLN and the rightist opposition party ARENA, have pledged to join the initiative. This new stage involves local ad hoc prevention plans aimed at gang members’ families and youth at risk. The truces have become the principal security policy of the Funes administration.

The lack of transparency around the planning and implementation – above all the origin of the initial pact –has fueled skepticism among journalists, politicians and the general public, and polling has not shown wide support for the truce.  The United States has become one of the fiercest critics of the initiative, with its first official reaction a few days after Salvadoran electronic news outlet El Faro revealed details in March 2012 of secret negotiations between the gangs and the Salvadoran intelligence service. U.S. Under Secretary of State María Otero, visiting San Salvador, declared that the gangs must disappear, suggesting disapproval of the appeasement implicit in secret talks, and U.S. law enforcement officials have always been privately skeptical.  The Treasury Department is helping local American police departments attack MS13’s financial networks, which some in San Salvador interpret as a political signal of Washington distancing itself from the truce – an ironic twist given that Munguía Payés was installed largely because of U.S. pressure.  The stakes were raised last week when the State Department issued a warning to travelers to El Salvador, expressing for the first time in writing doubts about the truce.

The Salvadoran state and society face a complex road ahead.  The reduction in the homicide rate is, of course, welcome, and opposition to the second stage of the plan, the municipal sanctuaries, will be muted in a preelectoral year.  (The ARENA candidate for President, Norman Quijano, has remained skeptical but seems likely to jump on the bandwagon.) But with its ambiguous public stance on the truce despite its Security Minister’s political commitment, the Funes administration has not pledged to fund the second stage of the truce, and it seems very unlikely that the United States will be stepping in.  Another factor is that while El Salvador´s security operations are constrained by the truce, other important problems – such as extortion, drug trafficking, impunity and corruption – remain untouched. Furthermore, evidence is slowly emerging that the organized crime rings are using the circumstances to expand their influence and take advantage of their relationship with some of the gangs’ most violent cliques to enhance trafficking routes. Washington’s skepticism about the truce is valid and should be followed up with an emphasis on the underlying causes of El Salvador’s ills.